The NFL season hasn’t even ended yet, but that hasn’t stopped gloom and doom from setting in for Cowboys fans. Thanks to the “we can’t keep everyone” comments from “Scrooge McDuck” Stephen Jones and smoke signals sent out about how DeMarcus Lawrence and Amari Cooper could end up being cap casualties this offseason, Cowboys fans everywhere have been sent into a frenzy.
It’s very true that the Cowboys are strapped for cash this upcoming season. They are currently $21 million in the hole for 2022 and it’s going to require some financial creativity to get under the cap. That means the front office is either going to have to cut costs and say hasta luego to some key players currently under contract. or they’re going to have to do some restructuring to push some of this year’s cost to future years. It’s possible a little bit of both happens.
While this makes for an unsettling predicament, the reality of the Cowboys' financial situation isn’t as bad as it seems. For starters, the Cowboys have a talented roster. We can debate ad nauseam about what ails this franchise the most and why they can’t get over the hump, but most would agree that there is sufficient talent on this team to get them where they need to go. If this team was troubled with a bunch of overpriced underperformers, then it becomes time to bite the bullet and cut their losses. Moving on from a player like Dez Bryant is an example of that. But is that the case with this team? Are Lawrence and Cooper no longer vital contributors? Are they not worth the money their contracts command?
Before the front office does anything, they should remember one really important rule - keep great players. That’s it. If they’re great, don’t cut them loose. General managers should be in the business of collecting talent, not tossing it aside. Additionally, if that said great talent plays a position that impacts the passing game, then they become even more valuable. Positions like a quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver, and cornerback (positions known as the “money five”) are all crucial to the success of every team. Lawrence and Cooper both fall into that category. So, again, keep great players, especially if they play high-demand positions in the NFL.
If moving on from them is not the smart play, then it becomes time to move some money around; however, wouldn’t that be hosing over future Cowboys teams? No, and we’ll tell you why. In fact, today we have identified three reasons why the Cowboys shouldn’t be worried about their salary cap situation.
1. Offensive line money is coming
For years, the Cowboys have had a huge piece of their pie allocated to strong performers along the offensive line. Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, La’el Collins, and even Travis Frederick all had nice contracts to keep this band together. But as time goes on, players age, and eventually the Cowboys are going to have to remodel the position group. Frederick has been gone for a couple of seasons now and it’s just a matter of time before Smith joins him as he rides off into the sunset with what will be a Hall of Fame career. And to be honest, we don’t even know what the future holds for La’el Collins, who may have fallen out of favor with the new coaching staff. Regardless of how things play out, the end of this once special group is near.
The Cowboys have $61 million of their cap dollars (28.76%) allocated to their offensive line this season. That is second-most in the league, trailing only the New Orleans Saints. The big three of Smith, Martin, and Collins make up 25% of the team’s cap money. Here are their base salaries for the remainder of their current contracts:
This financial constraint won’t be here much longer. The Cowboys will revamp their offensive line with some younger and cheaper alternatives. The team has some young players in Terence Steele, Matt Farniok, and Josh Ball already on the roster and will likely take some shots in the draft in upcoming years to help improve their line.
The Cowboys could comfortably push money into the future knowing they have some sizeable cap hits coming off the books soon.
2. Zeke’s days are numbered
If an outside financial consultant came in and audited the Cowboys' investments against their production, Ezekiel Elliott’s contract would be a glaring red flag. For the same reasons Lawrence and Cooper should be kept around, Zeke becomes an ideal cap casualty candidate. His production continues to drop and he plays a much lower demand position. Even though he was forced into action in that 17th game to reach his 1,000 yards, Elliott’s per-game totals continue to decline. Zeke has played six years in the NFL, and in each year his yards per game average has been less than it was the previous year. He started out with 109 yards per game his rookie season in 2016 and it’s dropped all the way down to 59 yards per game this past season. That is bordering on a 50% drop in production and that is insane.
Elliott’s 2022 base salary is fully guaranteed, so don’t expect anything to change immediately unless something crazy happens and a trade is orchestrated. But after the 2022 season, all bets are off. The Cowboys have an escape clause built into Elliott’s contract next offseason which could get them out of the final $52 of the $90 million on his original deal. Unless something drastically changes, that cap space is likely headed somewhere else because it would be bad business to keep spending that type of money for those types of results. That’s not to say we don’t love Zeke and the fight he gives this team, but it’s hard to escape the effects of the mileage put on that body. And it’s even harder to see them not supplementing the game with much cheaper investments than what Elliott costs.
3. Building through the draft is not lip service
We may be tired of listening to Stephen Jones talk about building this team through the draft, but make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Credit Will McClay and company for doing a remarkable job of not only finding new stars in the draft, but also collecting several reliable starters. Just look at the last four-year rookie cycle and see how many players they have drafted who have had meaningful contributions.
That’s a total of 18 players over four years. And if you include Trysten Hill and Jabril Cox, who have each missed time due to injury, that equates to 20 different draft picks the team has gotten use from. That averages out to five new players each draft. That’s remarkable!
This level of efficiency may not be sustainable, but the Cowboys personnel department has an excellent track record in recent years and there is no reason to expect them to not be able to find meaningful contributors in future drafts. This is all the more reason to pay your stars and trust your ability to replenish talent to fill out the roster.